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Video:How to Choose Pain Medication

with Dr. Mona Khanna

Not every pain killer is created equal. Find out the differences between common over-the-counter medications and discover what's really in your medicine cabinet.See Transcript

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Transcript:How to Choose Pain Medication

The Pain Medication in Your Cabinet

If you're like most people, your medicine cabinet is stocked full of over-the-counter drugs. But do you really need to keep three or four different kinds of pain medication on hand? With so many over-the-counter drugs to choose from it can be hard to know what the best choice is for what ails you.

Two Groups of Pain Medication

Over-the-counter medications fall into one of two groups. The first are known as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. This group includes aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, and ketoprofen. Ibuprofen goes by the brand names Advil and Motrin. Naproxen is better known as Aleve. Ketoprofen is sold as Orudis. These drugs work by preventing your body from producing chemicals that cause fever and swelling. Doctors recommend them for minor to moderate discomfort due to headaches and muscle aches, colds and the flu, menstrual pain, arthritis, and toothaches.

The other category includes just one drug: acetaminophen. It's also known as Tylenol. No one is sure exactly how it works. One theory is that it keeps the brain's pain centers from receiving nerve signals. It's good for fever and mild to moderate pain from headaches, including tension headaches and migraines, as well as back pain, sore throat, arthritis, and shingles. The main difference between acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs is that acetaminophen does not reduce inflammation. That means it won't help with aches caused by swelling due to sports injuries, for example.

Some Warnings Regarding Pain Medication

In general, each one of these drugs is safe for most people when taken as directed. There are some exceptions. Don't give aspirin to children or teenagers because it can cause Reye's syndrome, a rare life threatening condition. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs shouldn't be taken by people who have ulcers or take blood thinning drugs, or by pregnant women. Acetaminophen is usually okay for pregnant women looking for short-term pain relief. In addition, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs shouldn't be given to children under 12 without first consulting a doctor. While acetaminophen is considered to be safe for children, pay close attention to dosage. Acetaminophen overdose is a common cause of drug-related deaths in children and adolescents.

Choose a Pain Medication

So with all these choices, how should you decide which over-the-counter pain medication is best for you? It partly depends on your symptoms. They all help with pain and fever, but since acetaminophen doesn't work for inflammation, you'll need to use one of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling. Because people respond in different ways to each of these drugs, most doctors suggest that you stick with the one that has worked for you in the past. That increases the chances that the drug will be effective and lowers the odds that you will suffer any side effects.

So do you need a cabinet full of over-the-counter pain medications? Not really. You're probably better off with just the one or two that work best for you. And if you've inadvertently collected more than a couple different kinds, some of them have probably expired anyway. So it may be worth checking to see what you've got. And what you can toss out.

I'm Dr. Mona Khanna, About Health.
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